Yet again the Lions series has come down to a decider. The momentum is with the Springboks but they will face a much-changed team in Cape Town today
South Africa v Lions Third Test Preview
If the British & Irish Lions tour ended now, how would history judge it? Let’s be honest, as a handful of one-sided warm-ups followed by a Test series of rancour, controversy and tedious, drawn-out rugby.
Four years ago there was a very different picture. During those agonising moments at the end of the third Test in Auckland, while we waited for Romain Poite to decide whether to award a penalty that would surely have given New Zealand the series, Kieran Read nudged opposing captain Sam Warburton. “How awesome is this?” he said. “This is the pinnacle, isn’t it?”
The teams shared the series and then posed in a joint photograph, arms draped around each other in rugby fellowship and mutual respect.
It’s not too late for South Africa and the Lions to salvage this tour. For proper rugby to surface and for the spirit of the game to come to the fore.
The teams are 1-1 in the series and meet at Cape Town Stadium today (5pm) for the decider. There must be no repeat of last week’s second Test, when every refereeing decision seemed to be questioned and/or referred to the TMO.
Players complained and threw up their arms. The officials were petrified of getting anything wrong. South Africa, behind on their fitness and conditioning because of Covid, were happy with the frequent stoppages but not so anyone watching. The first half took 63 minutes to complete, the second half a similar length of time. What a mess!
Top priority for referee Mathieu Raynal today is to keep the game moving.
When the clock is on, will the rugby be worth watching? Both teams have become obsessed with sticking the ball in the air, hoping to feed off defensive mistakes instead of backing their attacking talents. Any chance of seeing a Gregor Townsend-inspired strike move?
Fly-half Dan Biggar passed only three times last week – a shocking statistic – and no one wants to see garryowens being launched from just outside the opposition 22.
Yet it’s easy to understand why the Lions have adopted the tactics so beloved of their opponents. The tourists haven’t looked like scoring in a month of Sundays using conventional back play, such is the quality of the Springboks’ defence. Nor did they make much headway at close quarters, as the carrying stats demonstrate.
And there is so little time to prepare and hone something creative. The last week of the tour is about refreshing bodies and minds. Not overloading players but keeping it simple.
In the book Legacy of the Lions, Paul O’Connell relates how on the 2013 tour he and Graham Rowntree picked out 11 areas in need of improvement ahead of the deciding Test. Rowntree was presenting them to the players but when it came to the meeting, he covered three points and wrapped up his talk after two minutes.
Afterwards, O’Connell asked him why he had left out so much of their analysis. It turned out that when Warren Gatland had discovered Rowntree intended to show 11 video clips, he had said: “You’re only allowed to show three of them, pick whatever three you want.”
Gatland won that tour as head coach, then came that draw in New Zealand. Now he is one polished performance away from completing an unprecedented unbeaten treble against the three southern hemisphere superpowers.
He and his coaches have rolled the dice in selection, as they had to. The need to play some rugby instead of trying to outpunch the Boks in a slugfest was emphasised this week by Sir Graham Henry, coach of the 2001 Lions.
“If the Lions get up from here, it will be amazing,” said Henry. “They need to play a lot more football if they’re going to get a result. Because the South Africans have probably got the wood on them up front, particularly at scrum, and their kicking game is better.”
The extent of South Africa’s second-half dominance last Saturday suggests the Lions will need to produce the greatest display under Gatland’s tenure for him to bow out as a winner.
What’s the team news?
There are six personnel changes to last week’s Lions XV, plus one positional change.
The Lions dealt poorly with the Boks’ aerial assault in the second Test, so Liam Williams and Josh Adams come into the back three for Stuart Hogg and Anthony Watson respectively. Watson can feel a bit hard done by. Duhan van der Merwe, who has had one good Lions Test and one poor one, gets another chance.
Bundee Aki, the Lions’ strongest carrier at centre, comes in to see if he can make a dent or two in a so-far impregnable South African midfield. Robbie Henshaw shifts to outside-centre – the Lions’ third different 13 of the series.
Aki and Henshaw will reprise their Ireland combination, and there’s the same thinking in the front row where loosehead Wyn Jones – chosen for the first Test before injury intervened – will have Ken Owens for company. Mako Vunipola and Luke Cowan-Dickie drop to the bench.
Scrum-half Ali Price starts in place of Conor Murray and potentially he’ll have Scotland pal Finn Russell for company at some point after the fly-half’s recovery from an Achilles tear allows him to take his place among the eight replacements.
The bench is a thing of wonder, in fact, because it also includes Adam Beard, a specialist maul destroyer who joined the tour as a replacement, and Sam Simmonds, the dynamic No 8 who has not put a foot wrong. Kyle Sinckler is there too after a citing for biting was dismissed.
England captain Owen Farrell, after six Lions Test caps across three tours, misses out and so will have to wait until the autumn to win his 100th international cap.
South Africa make two enforced changes. Blindside Pieter-Steph du Toit (shoulder) and scrum-half Fat de Klerk (muscle strain) were injured during the second Test, so Lood de Jager and Cobus Reinach both start.
De Jager partners Eben Etzebeth in the engine room, with Franco Mostert dropping back a row, as he did after 55 minutes last week. It was a switch that turned the contest, the Boks taking control of the lineout and winning the remainder of the game 16-0.
De Klerk’s absence means the Boks are likely to kick a lot more off fly-half Handre Pollard.
Morné Steyn, the man whose kick won the series in 2009, comes on to the bench as the Boks opt for a five-three split this week.
What have the coaches said?
South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber: “This is a massive Test for us, with the Castle Lager Lions Series on the line, so it was important for us to maintain consistency in selection.
“Pieter-Steph du Toit was ruled out due to a shoulder injury, but we are fortunate to have experienced players such as Franco and Lood who can step in and who have the physical presence we need in those roles.
“Cobus is also an experienced player with a calm head and who can handle pressure, and we believe he will be able to dictate play well alongside Handre Pollard, while Herschel Jantjies has been great in adding the necessary spark we need off the bench.
“I’m delighted for Morné. He’s a world-class player and his work ethic and positive attitude on and off the field since joining the team in Bloemfontein have been impressive. He can also perform under extreme pressure and that skill will be invaluable in such a vital Test.”
Lions head coach Warren Gatland: “Defences are so tight that there’s very little space for both teams. You’ve got to look at playing through the phases and keeping ball. When we did that (last week), we put them under pressure. We’ve got to do more of that, we’ve got to be positive in terms of shifting the ball when we do create opportunities.”
On the replacements: “Finn Russell comes onto the bench as he’s a bit different. The two tens are very good at what they do but are quite similar and he offers us something different.
“One of the strengths of Adam Beard is his maul defence; he was unlucky not to start the first Test and we felt we needed someone like that to negate one of their strengths. Sam Simmonds we talked about as a guy to have on the bench as the game breaks up.”
On the need for tempo: “I think there are two things there. One is looking to keep the ball and also talking to officials about making sure that we keep the game flowing.
“We felt like that at every scrum there was an injury, slowing the game down. There was something like 14 minutes of TMO time (last week) and we’ve worked pretty hard from a conditioning point of view, but it was really stop-start and that made it frustrating for us.
“We want to keep the tempo of the game up to get the ball in at our scrums and get the ball in quickly at lineouts, to play and to get a flow. And South Africa at the moment don’t want to do that. We had stud changes, we had TMO decisions, we had the referee stopping the game for cramp. We can’t have 60-odd minute halves.”
On the misconduct charge against Rassie Erasmus: “The only thing I’m disappointed about in World Rugby’s statement is that they’ve kind of inadvertently dragged us into it.
“We’ve tried to maintain as much integrity as we can, we haven’t been commenting on refereeing. We never questioned the TMO. The only question we asked is why hadn’t World Rugby put a contingency plan in place if people couldn’t travel or got sick.
“So I’m really disappointed with a part of the statement where they’ve sort of said both sides have been making comments and being critical of the officials. We can’t see any instances where we’ve been critical of the officials. In fact, I think we’ve praised the officials.”
Any interesting stats?
- South Africa have lost only seven out of 54 home series in history, and only two in the pro era – against New Zealand in 1996 and the Lions in 1997
- Alun Wyn Jones becomes the first Lion to play every Test in four consecutive series. He also draws level with Graham Price on 12 Lions Test caps – the most by a Welshman
- Prop Wyn Jones’s selection means the Lions will have three different starting looseheads in a series for the first time since 1968
- All three of Warren Gatland’s Lions tours as head coach have gone to a decider
- Centre Damian de Allende wins his 50th South Africa cap
- Nine Lions, including six of the pack, will start all three Tests of the series
- Referee Mathieu Raynal sent off Bundee Aki in this year’s Ireland-England match. It was for a dangerous tackle on Billy Vunipola
- Morné Steyn’s last Test appearance was almost five years ago, in 2016 v New Zealand
- Boks stand-off Handré Pollard needs six points to reach 500 Test points and two penalty goals to bring up a century of penalties
- The Springboks need two tries to reach 100 tries against the Lions
What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
South Africa v British & Irish Lions, Saturday 7 August, Cape Town Stadium
The match kicks off at 5pm (BST). It will be broadcast live on Sky Sports, with highlights on Channel 4 at 10.30pm this evening and at 8.25am on Sunday. Or you can listen to live commentary on talkSPORT.
We’re delighted to hear that Miles Harrison, one of the game’s best commentators over the past three decades, will be back on duty after recovering from colon cancer. Rugby World sends Miles our very best wishes.
Frenchman Mathieu Raynal is the unfortunate soul taking charge of this one, after southern hemisphere officials Nic Berry (Australia) and Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand) did their stint in Tests one and two. They revert to assistant referee roles.
South African Marius Jonker is on TMO duty for the third and final time in the series. As we warned two weeks ago, giving someone from the host nation such a critical role was bound to create problems – irrespective of their integrity – and that’s exactly what has happened. Who knows what decisions await Jonker et al today…
What are the line-ups?
South Africa: Willie le Roux; Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende; Makazole Mapimpi; Handré Pollard, Cobus Reinach; Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Siya Kolisi (capt), Franco Mostert, Jasper Wiese.
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Marco van Staden, 20 Kwagga Smith, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Morné Steyn, 23 Damian Willemse.
British & Irish Lions: Liam Williams; Josh Adams, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Duhan van der Merwe; Dan Biggar, Ali Price; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tadhg Furlong, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry, Jack Conan.
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Adam Beard, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Finn Russell, 23 Elliot Daly.
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